In its fourth year, Harvard's President’s Challenge brings “together talented people from across the University and supports their efforts to address the world’s most pressing challenges.” For Jason Munster, a doctoral student in Environmental Science and Engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and his team, that pressing challenge is environmental pollution. Clear Breath, founded by Jason, aims to provide an effective and affordable pollution respirator unlike any on the current market. Jahred Liddie, College ’16, recently interviewed Jason about his group’s submission, one of ten finalists in the prestigious competition.

Editor's Note: The President's Challenge winner was announced after this interview was conducted. Read more.

Jahred: Let’s start broad. What motivates your interest in engineering and the environment?

Jason: In short, I want to help people. And I’m good at science. I had to find a way to use that to help people. When I graduated, I began working for JPMorgan. I hated it. People there pretended that they were doing something important. “We provide liquidity to make money move.” I quit and joined the Anderson Group at Harvard, knowing it’d be a great launching ground to find some major problem to solve. I got lucky in that it was a group in which I could learn everything I needed to know about designing and testing things. 

JL: Give us a summary of the problem Clear Breath hopes to solve.

JM: Two billion people live in air pollution. Over a billion people live on about $2/day. The lowest cost mask that starts to address pollution is $1 for 8 hours of protection. They can’t afford it. We have one that does the same thing that looks like it will cost less than $0.10 per day.

Why is this important? Because 7 million people will die from air pollution this year, 350,000 of them children in India. At least hundreds of millions will suffer life-long respiratory problems from exposure to air pollution as children. One example? An Indian growing up in India has 30% less lung capacity than an Indian growing up in Europe.

We can help solve this by providing a low-cost solution.

Photo of the mask schematic (the filter holders are the two cylinders at the bottom of the mask)Photo of the mask schematic (the filter holders are the two cylinders at the bottom of the mask)

Second, no other so-called pollution mask have ever been designed for pollution. Masks by 3M are designed for construction. Every other pollution mask uses the exact same tech and general design. Some might make them prettier. They all lack science. There are three major life-threatening pollutants. The best masks only filter one. We have proof-of-concept on how to filter all three. We are bringing the world its first real pollution mask.

We are bringing the world its first real pollution mask.

JL: What was your group’s inspiration for entering the challenge?

JM: I’ve been working on this for two years. I’ve got the design and all the materials. I had a prototype before the President’s Challenge, but physical products are not the same as software. We aren’t a mobile application, we can’t just launch. We need funds to get this off the ground, do initial market testing, and then start manufacturing.

Additionally, the prestige of the challenge is unquestionable. Our goal is to save a million lives per year by 2020. To reach this, we need strong partnerships. Being in the President’s Challenge helps provide us with that legitimacy. Winning it would likely secure partnerships to make this happen faster.

JL: What is new to the Clear Breath design? How does it differ from a gas mask? 

Gas masks are expensive, uncomfortable, heavy, and hot. A gas mask can fit anyone, provided they shave, but it covers most of your head. They can filter pretty much anything, but they use a two-pound canister than hangs off your face. Not fun.

Next up we have facemasks. Most of these have fit issues. There are various face-shapes in the world. If you get a mask that doesn’t fit your face, you aren’t filtering anything. Pollution is small, it’ll find the gaps in the fit that you’ll be breathing through.

Some competitors address this problem pretty well. But they also cost more than some people make in a month. And, as mentioned above, no one is marketing anything that has any real science behind it. What this situations results in is a bunch of designers thinking that if something looks nice, it’ll magically work.

Our design is a bit radical. We have a reusable mask that uses replacement filters. Our low-cost solution doesn’t worry about fit and seal, because it is mouth-held. That brings the up-front cost down to about 50 cents for a respirator that will last indefinitely, and the filters will cost less than a tenth of competitors that do the same thing. For those that can afford a higher up-front cost, the same filters will go in a standard facemask that costs about $20.

Additionally, our high-value product, targeted at wealthier markets, uses proprietary materials to filter out other nasty pollutants.

JL: What was most challenging in launching the idea?

JM: The toughest part is all the naysayers. Some people really hate this idea. “No one ever wears facemasks.” Tell that to the $1.5 billion dollar market for facemasks in Japan, China, and Taiwan. Before I found that the market size was so large, it was frustrating every time someone claimed they were experts on whether people would wear masks.

Second, was finding the right team. Finding people with the skills we need who wants this as much to save lives as to make money is surprisingly hard.

Other than that, it’s expensive to develop new tech. Bootstrapping was tough on the finances. Otherwise, I had all the skills I needed to get prototypes and set a clear path for development. Our team is strong and growing.

JL: What’s the next step for Clear Breath?

JM: With funding, we hope to start market testing in India to get final feedback to make a product designed specifically for the people who need it most. Ideally, we'll be saving lives as soon as 2016.